CEO's Start-Up Toolkit: Best of the Web

A panel of entrepreneurs searches for the best spots to shop online

Does anybody buy computers in person anymore? If you buy technology today, the odds are pretty good that you make some of the purchases online -- or at least choose some items based on information you've found online. Your most important choice may therefore be not which product to buy but which site to start with. With our crew of entrepreneurs, we reviewed three of the top multivendor retailers, with an eye to their overall effectiveness as tech-buying sites for Inc. Technology readers. We didn't evaluate the quality of the products sold there but rather considered whether the site would help readers make quick, productive work of buying computers, peripherals, and/or networking hardware (all from multiple manufacturers) for a small company. (Note, too, that for this trip we ignored the single-source, direct-market sites such as Dell.com and Gateway.com. But, of course, you may want to give those sites a try.) Another buying site not reviewed here but worth checking out is Zones.com, which features a unique set of business-to-business buying tools.

But what good is an online technology source without unbiased online technology insight? To accompany our source reviews, we first looked at a selection of "product comparison" research sites, places that promise unbiased reviews, comparisons, specifications, and other data to help you make informed decisions when shopping online.


Where to Do Your Research

www.zdnet.com
What it offers: Oodles of product information and articles; links to buying sites
What it's good for: Locating in-depth articles and analysis
Don't waste your time on: Expecting to navigate the site without getting a migraine; the layout is too busy.
What our panel had to say: Our reviewers were un-wowed by ZDNet, although one panelist, the CEO of a consulting and publishing firm, found the site's "Anti-Virus Guide" very valuable. He also appreciated how much content ZDNet offered from a single access point. Still, he wished the presentation had been better. He recommended an "at a glance" organizational model in which lists of products in a category or resulting from a search are shown with review data on a single page.

www.cnet.com
What it offers: Lots of good tech information and links to buying sites
What it's good for: Product reviews, articles, "Editors' Choice" awards
Don't waste your time on: Clicking on the links to "premier sponsor" sellers, which muddy an otherwise unbiased presentation
What our panel had to say: CNet.com is broad in the same way that ZDNet.com is, but it's much better organized and easier on the eyes. The site features not only product information and comparisons but also articles, tech news, tech-job notices, how-to instructions, and even product auctions. In addition to doing broad product searches, visitors can display "Editors' Choice" picks and lists of the most popular products in various categories. The site presents it all within a happy balance of good design and readability.


The combination of product news, reviews, and access to technical products makes CNet an easy stop.


Panelists liked CNet. One dubbed it "simple, concise, and focused," and observed that "there are other comparison-shopping engines, but the combination of news, reviews, and shopping for technical products makes this an easy stop."

www.productopia.com
What it offers: A friendly gateway to product information and links to buying sites
What it's good for: Training-wheels-easy tours of product categories
Don't waste your time on: Getting advanced techie-type info; the content is skewed to newbies.
What our panel had to say: Productopia is exactly what it sounds like: a consumer-oriented, all-purpose repository of information on all types of products, including cars, appliances, clothing, and more.
The pages that deal with computers are adequate though clearly skewed to novices. In the plus column, however, there are "user reviews" and discussion groups that may offer some firsthand insight into products you're considering buying -- although we could find very little information about the items we tried. Both Mac and PC products are available and offered as equivalent choices for the same tasks. For example, computers that were selected as "Style Picks" (apparently for how good they'll look sitting on your desk) included an Apple iMac as well as PCs from Sony and Quantex.
Despite the site's consumerishness, panelists were impressed with Productopia, which got unanimously high marks for its search function, presentation, and navigability.

www.techshopper.com
What it offers: A handy way to research and buy from a single site
What it's good for: Research, but not purchasing
Don't waste your time on: Trying to locate customer service; panelists had trouble tracking down that link.
What our panel had to say: The reviewers approved of TechShopper, although one wished that the site's customer service had been made more apparent. Another panelist was surprised and impressed by the amount of Mac information that was available, though he conceded that the site was skewed to the PC market. "If you're not sure what you want, then this site is great to clarify," commented one reviewer. "But if you just want to click and buy, too much effort is required to get to the final step."

www.dealtime.com
What it offers: One-site searches for a product's price and availability on multiple other sites
What it's good for: Great searches
Don't waste your time on: Looking for consumer comments to back up your choices. You won't find any.
What our panel had to say: In addition to doling out product information on pet supplies and jewelry along with computer information, DealTime searches online stores, auctions, classifieds, and buying groups and delivers a list of places where shoppers can find what they want at the best price or terms.


Great finds: DealTime.com searches for places you can shop for the lowest prices or the best terms.


Panelists loved DealTime's navigability and search function. One entrepreneur especially appreciated the site's tracking feature, which automatically sends customers updates on products that they have flagged for tracking for up to two months. One panelist would have appreciated some pictures of the products in the initial search-response list. She also would like to have seen comments from other consumers to assist her in making her decision.

www.mysimon.com
What it offers: One-site convenience for searching for a product's price and availability on multiple other sites
What it's good for: It's friendly to very new shoppers.
Don't waste your time on: Navigation. It's more difficult than it seems at first glance. And the "Simon" cartoon character is annoying.
What our panel had to say: Like DealTime, mySimon searches online stores for products in order to help you find the best deals on the Web. The site's name and personality derive from its mascot and spokesman, a cartoon character you might like only if you also like the Office Assistant character that offers help in Microsoft Office.
Panelists drubbed mySimon. "This site is difficult to navigate, it's nonintuitive, and it presents itself as unbiased when in fact -- unless they are just bad at what they do -- their search engine fails to find many products I know are available on numerous sites on the Web," said one entrepreneur. "They have a great idea and an unbiased shopping search engine. However, they sell advertising and present some stores in a biased fashion, so they don't do what they claim to do."
Another panelist liked mySimon only slightly better but also lamented the small range of products her searches turned up.

Where to Buy

www.beyond.com
What it offers: Lots and lots of software
What it's good for: Software, handhelds, and business discounts available with registration
Don't waste your time on: Looking for desktops and notebooks. Plus, the Recommendation Guide is too simplistic to offer much expert guidance.
What our panel had to say: Panelists liked Beyond's "Top 10" lists of the most popular products in a category and the links to Top Products by Top Publishers and Top Manufacturers, which provides fast access to the latest and greatest from Microsoft, Symantec, and other heavy hitters. One panelist called Beyond "unique, deep, and competitive." Another panelist found Beyond of "limited use" because of its dearth of Mac hardware.


Our panelists said that Beyond.com goes above and beyond in offering a broad selection of software.


www.buycomp.com
What it offers: A complete range of computer products, including hardware, software, and networking options
What it's good for: Product searches and special sales
Don't waste your time on: Expecting to find everything you need in one place -- or a strong B2B personality
What our panel had to say: This site packs all of the useful product-search tools, including keyword and shop-by-brand searches, and it appears to be a good place to check for special discounts and sales. Move quickly, though; sales may be offered on a very limited number of units, in some cases. Wait half an hour, and they might be out of stock. Though the site looks and feels like a substantial warehouse, it's surprising how limited the selection is at times. And the site makes no real attempt to address the special needs of business buyers.
Panelists thought BuyComp was OK but agreed that although "the notion is good, the entire process of business-to-business ordering, tracking, and promoting customer satisfaction is not yet quite there." This same panelist wanted to find out more about such things as order turnaround time and support contracts.

www.cdw.com
What it offers: A complete range of computer products, including hardware, software, and networking options
What it's good for: Well-managed business accounts and good search and organizational tools
Don't waste your time on: Looking for product reviews. You'll find only product specs, not opinions.
What our panel had to say: This site appears to be well tailored to the business-technology buyer. From a "My Company" link on the home page, you can set up a customized "CDW@work" extranet for your company. (You can use the extranet to communicate product selections and standards to your purchasing team and also to set up and administer employee purchase programs and to access customized pricing.)
Panelists rated CDW about average overall. One offered, "The site is good at delivering the basic information, but nothing special." He felt that the corporate-account features were easy to set up and use but added little value. Listing product specifications without any accompanying reviews was also cited as a CDW downfall.

Ned Snell is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.


Research Sites
Would our CEOs go back? What is the site good for? CEOs' quick take
TechShopper.com
www.techshopper.com
Occasionally, if they had a specific need Selection; accurate product information "I liked the layout: easy to use, simple, straightforward."
DealTime.com
www.dealtime.com
Occasionally, if they had a specific need Strong product information for research "For setting up or expanding an office, it would be very useful."
mySimon.com
www.mysimon.com
Occasionally, if they had a specific need Thoroughness "Not too much different from all the other shopping sites out there."
ZDNet.com
www.zdnet.com
Occasionally, if they had a specific need New-product announcements; free downloads "Too detailed; very similar to other sites; nothing special about it."
CNet.com
www.cnet.com
Once a week Usefulness of content; industry-specific information "It allowed me to get the information I needed."
Productopia.com
www.productopia.com
Once a week Outstanding consumer-goods section "It is a consumer service with limited business applications."

Buying Sites
Would our CEOs go back? What is the site good for? CEOs' quick take
CDW.com
www.cdw.com
Occasionally, if they had a specific need Basic information "They deliver the basic information, but nothing special."
Beyond.com
www.beyond.com
Once a week Links to top publishers and manufacturers "Unique, deep, and competitive."
BuyComp.com
www.buycomp.com
Occasionally, if they had a specific need Product quality; accuracy of information "Good concepts, but fuzzy on such things as order turnaround time and support contracts."

Our Reviewers

Al Acitelli, CEO, BestInService.com Credit Reporting
Jay Graves, president and cofounder, DataMark Inc.
Susan Howington, vice-president business development, Lee Hecht Harrison
Linda Kellogg, founder and CEO, Start-Up Resources Inc.
Beth Marcus, CEO, president and founder, Glow Dog Inc.
Dan Maude, president and CEO, Beacon Application Services Corp.
Marion McGovern, president, M Squared LLC
Debbi Milner, CEO, Jade Systems Corp.
James Morel, president, 1-800 Postcards
Gerry Philpott, president and CEO, E-Poll.com
Eric Schechter, president, GAME: Great American Marketing & Events
Al Shariff, owner and president, GlobeTrends Inc.
Srikanth Sundararajan, CEO and president, Pretzel Logic Software Inc.
Vincent Trantolo, chief operating officer, Annotate.net LLC
Maura White, founder and CEO, GoBabies.com
Mark Zweig, president and CEO, Zweig White & Associates Inc.


For more on the gear you really need to start and grow your small business, see our CEO's Start-Up Toolkit.


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